Protestantism and Protestant Missions

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Protestant missions were active in the Middle East from the nineteenth century.

Protestant denominations based chiefly in the United States and Britain have sponsored missionary activities in the Middle East since the opening of the nineteenth century, leaving a legacy of educational and benevolent institutions whose influence is felt to the present day. Protestantism, one of the three major branches of Christianity, encompasses a large number of denominations with widely differing liturgical and theological structures. What they have in common is that they do not recognize the moral and doctrinal authority of the Roman pontiff, they stress the centrality of the Bible and each individual's interpretation of it, and they share the belief that in the matter of salvation, the relationship between the individual and God is unmediated.

Missions in the Nineteenth Century

The most prominent missionary organization in the United States was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), supported by the Congregational Church, which established mission stations in Lebanon in 1823, in Constantinople in 1831, and in Urmia (Iran) in 1834. In 1870 the ABCFM turned over part of its territory of operations, including Lebanon, to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. The Arabian Mission, founded as a nondenominational mission under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church in America in 1889, established a school in Basra and hospitals in Muscat, Bahrain, and Kuwait. In Britain the leading missionary organization in the Middle East was the Church Missionary Society (CMS), which began work in Smyrna (İzmir) in 1815, in Egypt in 1825, in Julfa (Isfahan) in 1875, and in Damascus in 1860. Among many smaller or short-lived mission societies that attempted work in the Middle East were the Boston Female Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, founded in 1816, and the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.

The original goal of Protestant missions in the Middle East was to preach the Gospel to Muslims. Both goal and method met immediate obstacles: Despite Muslim respect for the prophethood of Jesus, Christ as deity was and is incompatible with Islamic monotheism; for the person to be converted, leaving one's religious community, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, meant separation from family and social networks; politically, under Ottoman authority missionaries were forbidden to preach among Muslims; and finally, the price of apostasy in Islamic law is death. Lack of familiarity with indigenous languages on the part of missionaries was also a serious obstacle to successful preaching.

Consequently, in a pattern that most missionary societies were to follow, the ABCFM turned its attention to indigenous Christian communities: Nestorian, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, and Syriac. Considered by the ABCFM to be "nominal Christians," unschooled in the Bible and bankrupt of Christian virtues, these Christians were to be reformed from within so as to serve as models of emulation to their Muslim neighbors, and ultimately become the instrument of their evangelization. The method of attracting potential proselytes to the Gospel message was benevolent service, such as establishing schools for children and clinics to offer medical care. Often such evangelizing aroused the resentment and noncooperation of indigenous church leaders whose parishioners began to gravitate to the missions, and with good reason: Protestant missionaries were perceived to be well-connected politically and able to offer protection to minorities; they offered schools and medical care available nowhere else; and, after the creation of a Protestant Millet, becoming Protestant entitled converts to commercial privileges originally afforded only to Europeans.

The outcome was breaking off of separate Protestant congregations from each of the Eastern Orthodox churches, which had already been fractured by the creation of separate Catholic denominations. In Turkey, where Armenians were the primary target, there were 111 Armenian Protestant churches by 1895, and in Egypt, by 1926 there were 150 congregations of Coptic Protestant Christians with 155 Egyptian clergy. As a percentage of the total population, the number of Christians of all denominations declined precipitously in the last decades of the twentieth century, especially in Palestine, but in the mid-1970s there were altogether about 250,000 indigenous Protestants in the Middle East.

Protestant missions have been criticized for bringing about increased sectarianism in a region already fragmented by religious sectarianism. Missionary activity has also been blamed for prompting violence against religious minorities, such as the massacre of Nestorian Assyrian Christians by Kurds in 1843 and the assaults against the Alawi in eastern Turkey later in the century. On the other hand, the benevolent work of Protestant missions brought about positive and lasting change. In order to proselytize, for example, missionaries imported the first printing presses into the region, prepared translations, and helped to expand literacy. Missionary health care institutions, such as the Arabian Mission hospitals in Bahrain and Kuwait, the Edinburgh Medical Mission in Damascus, the CMS medical missions in Baghdad and Mosul, and twelve missionary hospitals in Iran, offered the best medical care available for their time.

The most enduring achievement of the missions lay in founding institutions of higher education, such as the American University of Beirut, established in 1864 as the Syrian Protestant College; Robert College in Constantinople (1863); and the American University in Cairo (1920). The Presbyterian Mission's American Junior College for Women in Beirut, the American College for Girls in Cairo, and Constantinople College for Girls were the first institutions of higher education for women in the Middle East. Around the Persian Gulf and in many rural areas across the region, missionary schools were the only secondary schools offering secular subjects for girls until well after World War I. The British Syrian Mission alone opened fifty-six schools for girls, starting in 1860.

By the end of World War I, missionary work in the Middle East began to decline along with Western enthusiasm for the missionary enterprise worldwide. In the 1930s and 1940s governments of the newly independent states in the Middle East placed increasing limitations on missionary activities, by nationalizing schools, for example, so that many missionary societies consolidated their efforts or ceased operations.

Contemporary Missions

Since about 1980 globalization has brought Protestant missions back onto the world stage in a new burst of activity. Using the Internet and satellite television for fundraising and recruitment, and establishing cooperative links with international agencies, churches, and other mission organizations abroad, mission societies both old and new have a presence in almost every country in the Middle East.

In method, purpose, and constituency, these societies fall into two broadly divergent categories. On the one hand are spiritual and institutional descendants of mainline Protestant denominations who have consolidated mission projects institutionally and partnered their efforts with each other and with indigenous Christian churches. Concerned with Christian benevolent action for the benefit of all, as opposed to proselytizing on behalf of a particular religious doctrine, these mission organizations focus on building community with indigenous religious groups, promoting social justice, and alleviating human suffering. Global Ministries, for example, represents a consolidation of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Disciples of Christ and Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ, and partners with a wide network of regional and international religious organizations that share their goals and values. These links include Churches for Middle East Peace, which is itself an ecumenical advocacy group of mainline U.S. and Middle Eastern Protestant churches, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, the Young Men's Christian Association International, and the Middle East Council of Churches, which is a fellowship of local Christian communions tied to the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC maintains its own relief agency in the Middle East, Action of the Churches Together (ACT), which responds to emergencies by joining forces with like-minded international agencies. In anticipation of humanitarian needs resulting from the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq, for example, ACT joined with U.K.-based Christian Aid, Norwegian Church Aid, Lutheran World Federation, and the Dutch-based Inter Church Organization for Development Cooperation.

By contrast, U.S. conservative evangelical missionary organizations targeting the Middle East are concerned primarily with evangelizing Muslims through forthright teaching that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone. For these groups, extending humanitarian aid is a worthy task in its own right, but it is to be given in tandem with a Christian message. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in anticipation of Iraqi refugees crossing into Jordan in 2003, sent food boxes carrying a quote from John 1:17 translated into Arabic: "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ." Similarly, the evangelical mission Samaritan's Purse (SP) supports a health clinic in Afghanistan and a hospital, schools, and agricultural and food aid in war-torn Sudan, where mission staff are bound to fulfill SP's statement of faith, which includes the belief that evangelism is a responsibility of the church and of every individual Christian. There are also evangelicals in the Middle East who encourage activities that have the effect of overt evangelism. For example, in 1995, religious associations in Lebanon and in Egypt joined a consortium of European and U.S. evangelical groups to establish a Christian satellite television station, SAT-7.

One outcome of proselytizing among Muslims has been a spate of assaults on evangelical missionaries, including the 2002 killing in southern Lebanon of a U.S. nurse working at a missionary clinic and the shooting death in Yemen two months later of three missionary medical staff and the wounding of a fourth. These assaults, in the viewpoint of mainstream clergy in the Middle East, both Catholic and Protestant, are evidence that direct evangelizing of Muslims is not only counterproductive but puts all missionaries as well as local Christians in jeopardy. Evangelicals counter that their objective is merely to expose people to the truth that Jesus is their savior, and let them decide for themselves. Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse and politically the most influential evangelical leader in the United States, equates their deaths with martyrdom, and sees them as an inspiration to others who would follow in their footsteps.

Another major source of contention between U.S. evangelical and mainline Protestant missions stems from the evangelicals' stated belief in the Bible as literal word of God, interpreted to sanctify the expansion of Jewish settlement over all of Palestine and beyond. By contrast, mainline Protestant groups seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict that accommodates all the region's peoples.


Robert, Dana L. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.

Stanley, Brian. The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester, U.K.: Apollos, 1990.

Tejirian, Eleanor H., and Simon, Reeva. Altrusim and Imperialism: Western Cultural and Religious Missions in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Tibawi, A. L. American Interests in Syria, 18001901. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1966.

eleanor abdella doumato

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Protestantism and Protestant Missions

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